David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Middlemarch and Mary Garth

People often forget Mary Garth in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. She is the third heroine of the book, not as idealistic as Dorothea and not as shallow as Rosamond, but wittier and probably smarter than both. She is the character for whom I have the greatest affection, and I wish Eliot had spent more time with her in the novel. Much of the critical work on Middlemarch barely mentions her.

Mary Garth and Fred Vincy: a reasonably happy ending.

Passages like the following jumped out at me the first time I read Middlemarch, signaling a character far more conscious of society and her place in it than any of the other characters:

Mary Garth, on the contrary, had the aspect of an ordinary sinner: she was brown; her curly dark hair was rough and stubborn; her stature was low; and it would not be true to declare, in satisfactory antithesis, that she had all the virtues. Plainness has its peculiar temptations and vices quite as much as beauty; it is apt either to feign amiability, or, not feigning it, to show all the repulsiveness of discontent: at any rate, to be called an ugly thing in contrast with that lovely creature your companion, is apt to produce some effect beyond a sense of fine veracity and fitness in the phrase. At the age of two-and-twenty Mary had certainly not attained that perfect good sense and good principle which are usually recommended to the less fortunate girl, as if they were to be obtained in quantities ready mixed, with a flavor of resignation as required. Her shrewdness had a streak of satiric bitterness continually renewed and never carried utterly out of sight, except by a strong current of gratitude towards those who, instead of telling her that she ought to be contented, did something to make her so. Advancing womanhood had tempered her plainness, which was of a good human sort, such as the mothers of our race have very commonly worn in all latitudes under a more or less becoming headgear. Rembrandt would have painted her with pleasure, and would have made her broad features look out of the canvas with intelligent honesty. For honesty, truth-telling fairness, was Mary’s reigning virtue: she neither tried to create illusions, nor indulged in them for her own behoof, and when she was in a good mood she had humor enough in her to laugh at herself.

Whatever deficiencies of sense she might have, Eliot is nonetheless painting her, at age 22, as uncommonly acute. Perhaps Eliot downplayed Mary’s role because her knowingness would have destabilized the development of the book’s plot. Mary Garth would surely see Casaubon’s folly long before Dorothea does, so she can’t be allowed to spill the beans.

Mary’s situation is not as auspicious as Dorothea’s or Rosamond’s, yet her keen mind provides her with a salve. She hides her utterly justified irritability and contempt and still realizes she must be yet more careful.

If you want to know more particularly how Mary looked, ten to one you will see a face like hers in the crowded street tomorrow, if you are there on the watch: she will not be among those daughters of Zion who are haughty, and walk with stretched-out necks and wanton eyes, mincing as they go: let all those pass, and fix your eyes on some small plump brownish person of firm but quiet carriage, who looks about her, but does not suppose that anybody is looking at her. If she has a broad face and square brow, well-marked eyebrows and curly dark hair, a certain expression of amusement in her glance which her mouth keeps the secret of, and for the rest features entirely insignificant — take that ordinary but not disagreeable person for a portrait of Mary Garth. If you made her smile, she would show you perfect little teeth; if you made her angry, she would not raise her voice, but would probably say one of the bitterest things you have ever tasted the flavor of; if you did her a kindness, she would never forget it.

That vigilance and circumspection makes her far less active than Dorothea, and so far less prone to folly. Eliot gives her fewer opportunities to display her strength of character, and yet when it emerges, hers is the strongest in the novel. She is definitively characterized in Mr. Featherstone’s death scene:

Mary Garth refuses Mr. Featherstone.

That night after twelve o’clock Mary Garth relieved the watch in Mr. Featherstone’s room, and sat there alone through the small hours. She often chose this task, in which she found some pleasure, notwithstanding the old man’s testiness whenever he demanded her attentions. There were intervals in which she could sit perfectly still, enjoying the outer stillness and the subdued light. The red fire with its gently audible movement seemed like a solemn existence calmly independent of the petty passions, the imbecile desires, the straining after worthless uncertainties, which were daily moving her contempt. Mary was fond of her own thoughts, and could amuse herself well sitting in twilight with her hands in her lap; for, having early had strong reason to believe that things were not likely to be arranged for her peculiar satisfaction, she wasted no time in astonishment and annoyance at that fact. And she had already come to take life very much as a comedy in which she had a proud, nay, a generous resolution not to act the mean or treacherous part. Mary might have become cynical if she had not had parents whom she honored, and a well of affectionate gratitude within her, which was all the fuller because she had learned to make no unreasonable claims.

She sat to-night revolving, as she was wont, the scenes of the day, her lips often curling with amusement at the oddities to which her fancy added fresh drollery: people were so ridiculous with their illusions, carrying their fool’s caps unawares, thinking their own lies opaque while everybody else’s were transparent, making themselves exceptions to everything, as if when all the world looked yellow under a lamp they alone were rosy. Yet there were some illusions under Mary’s eyes which were not quite comic to her. She was secretly convinced, though she had no other grounds than her close observation of old Featherstone’s nature, that in spite of his fondness for having the Vincys about him, they were as likely to be disappointed as any of the relations whom he kept at a distance. She had a good deal of disdain for Mrs. Vincy’s evident alarm lest she and Fred should be alone together, but it did not hinder her from thinking anxiously of the way in which Fred would be affected, if it should turn out that his uncle had left him as poor as ever. She could make a butt of Fred when he was present, but she did not enjoy his follies when he was absent.

Yet she liked her thoughts: a vigorous young mind not overbalanced by passion, finds a good in making acquaintance with life, and watches its own powers with interest. Mary had plenty of merriment within.

Her thought was not veined by any solemnity or pathos about the old man on the bed: such sentiments are easier to affect than to feel about an aged creature whose life is not visibly anything but a remnant of vices. She had always seen the most disagreeable side of Mr. Featherstone. he was not proud of her, and she was only useful to him. To be anxious about a soul that is always snapping at you must be left to the saints of the earth; and Mary was not one of them. She had never returned him a harsh word, and had waited on him faithfully: that was her utmost.

Middlemarch, Book I, Chapter 33

Realize that Mary does not behave well out of compassion or even duty, but rather out of stoic pragmatism and a more general attitude of virtue to the world: she resolves not to make it any worse a place than it already is. She takes on the burden of attending to others’ feelings even when they can’t be bothered to attend to hers, or anyone else’s. And it does not make her any less exacting toward herself or to others.

When Mary refuses to burn one of Featherstone’s two wills, even after he tries to bribe her, it is an act of self-preservation as much as moral fortitude, two aspects she keeps strongly in alignment:

He now lowered his tone with an air of deeper cunning. ” I’ve made two wills, and I’m going to burn one. Now you do as I tell you. This is the key of my iron chest, in the closet there. You push well at the side of the brass plate at the top, till it goes like a bolt: then you can put the key in the front lock and turn it. See and do that; and take out the topmost paper — Last Will and Testament — big printed.”

“No, sir,” said Mary, in a firm voice, ” I cannot do that.”

“Not do it? I tell you, you must,” said the old man, his voice beginning to shake under the shock of this resistance.

“I cannot touch your iron chest or your will. I must refuse to do anything that might lay me open to suspicion.”

“I tell you, I’m in my right mind. Shan’t I do as I like at the last? I made two wills on purpose. Take the key, I say.”

“No, sir, I will not,” said Mary, more resolutely still. Her repulsion was getting stronger.

“I tell you, there’s no time to lose.”

“I cannot help that, sir. I will not let the close of your life soil the beginning of mine. I will not touch your iron chest or your will.” She moved to a little distance from the bedside.

But Mary herself began to be more agitated by the remembrance of what she had gone through, than she had been by the reality — questioning those acts of hers which had come imperatively and excluded all question in the critical moment.

And this is even though she has clearly made the right decision–anything else would easily doom her. The plot requires that Mary’s refusal cause trouble for Fred by wrecking his inheritance, but this is a contrivance wholly external to Mary’s character.

Yet Mary’s dramatic moment is over as soon as it has begun. Such characters do not produce high drama. They contain the drama in their heads. Their day only came with modernism, not in the 19th century. I’m thinking not only of Eliot-lover Virginia Woolf, but also of Henry Green and Rebecca West.

Mary’s perspicacity gets confused for blandness or conformity. In “Dorothea’s Lost Dog,” Nina Auerbach dismisses her as a “wholesome” woman who “fears change” and lacks “reforming ambitions,” terminally conservative and complacent.

This is simply false, and not only because Mary’s cutting wit and desentimentalized realism put her far from the realm of pejorative wholesomeness. Through no fault of her own, Mary has it far harder than Dorothea or Rosamond, and she adapts to her situation better than either of them would. Mary knows the score, and she is by far the sharpest mind, too smart to ever get involved with someone for the wrong reasons, and careful enough to know how many wrong reasons there can be.

Mary refuses to give the reader the comfort that intelligence, wisdom, and virtue are enough for a woman to transcend female circumstances of the time–the pleasing and unlikely fantasy of innate superiority triumphing over oppression. Mary’s choices secure stability for her, but do not gain her a freedom which did not then exist. Patricia Meyer Spacks summarizes her character much more accurately:

Mary, at a lower economic level than Dorothea, must labor for her sustenance. Dependent on the will of others, she anticipates pursuing an occupation she hates until her father’s prosperity rescues her. Not beautiful, socially distinguished, or wealthy, she has power over the hearts of two men, but no social power whatever. Her commitment to Fred contains an element of sacrifice. She clearheadedly undertakes the task of making him into a man, thus confirming the possibilities of her womanhood. Longing for no wider sphere of action, she glorifies the sphere she inhabits by her willingness to work without making excuses for herself or for others. If she wanted more, she could not have it: hers is the heroism–real enough–of carefully controlled aspiration.

Patricia Meyer Spacks, The Female Imagination (1976)

And this is why Mary gets the reasonably happy ending that she does. But because she knows such things at the beginning of the novel and not just at the end, her character lacks an arc, unless that arc is her waiting around for others to wise up. We do not get her life story, so her lack of longing may be the product of empirical experience and insight as much as innate temperament. J. Hillis Miller gets it right here:

The narrators of Eliot’s novels, however, deconstruct masculine authority, even though they employ it. A feminine narrative authority that has no transcendent base replaces it. This authority takes responsibility for its own creative power. An expression of that feminine insight is Mary Garth’s somewhat detached, thoroughly demystified, ironic wisdom. Mary is perhaps of all the characters in Middlemarch closest to Marian Evans herself.

J. Hillis Miller, “A Conclusion in Which Almost Nothing is Concluded”

As Mary is “knowing” long before any of the other characters, the case for her being closest to Eliot herself is strong.

I won’t speculate on why Mary is so frequently ignored or dismissed while far more attention is paid to Celia, who has no greater prominence in the novel. The question deserves more investigation than I can give it. But I do want to add some other evidence to the record from two of the critics above, Patricia Meyer Spacks and Nina Auerbach.

In 1977, Nina Auerbach (no relation, incidentally) reviewed Spacks’ study The Female Imagination, quoted above:

Her authors are unified by their “problems,” a word which becomes less a specific set of circumstances than a lugubrious incantation. Her course at Wellesley is entitled “Woman Writers and Woman’s Problems,” and it analyzes strategies for “dealing with the problem of femininity” (p. 15)–revealing with combined despair and triumph the inadequacies of all of them.

Spacks extrapolates this world view, which she herself calls “dismal,” from surprising sources. Examining the dreams of freedom of the great nineteenth-century woman novelists, she reveals that the quaky underside of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, and Kate Chopin is in truth a “dream of dependency” (p. 77): the apparent aspiring exception is forced to collapse into the distasteful rule. Even Doris Lessing’s Anna Wulf finishes with no more than a glorification of defeat. There is something punitive in Spacks’s reduction of her authors’ and their heroines’ gains, however minute they may be, as there is in her reading of Isadora Duncan’s autobiography and Anais Nin’s diaries: their narcissism is stressed at the expense of the achievements it fueled; while conversely, Beatrice Webb is looked at askance for the impersonality of her professionalism. The structure of Spacks’s book creates anew the double bind she perceives as a woman’s life.

Spacks has been accused of distorting her material to make it sound as negative as possible and of deliberately evading social circumstances in a manner that reinforces male stereotypes of female debility; indeed, her conclusion asserts that books by women “do not destroy or even seriously challenge the old, man-created myths about women, but they shift the point of view” (p. 315).

So does The Female Imagination itself. Using literature to confront and create a “dismal” psychic paradigm with which few women can deny acquaintance, the book is consistently unlikable but always indelible: it has the claustrophobic inexorability of a naturalistic novel.  Making no prescriptions and disbelieving in change, Spacks creates a gallery of women whose mirror is their fetish and their fate.

Nina Auerbach, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Dec., 1977)

“Consistently unlikable but always indelible”–words that some would apply (unfairly of course) to the cutting and unromantic Mary Garth herself–those who haven’t forgotten about her, at any rate.

Ten years later in the same journal, Spacks reviewed Auerbach’s Romantic Imprisonment: Women and Other Glorified Outcasts: 

In Nina Auerbach’s literary universe, Jane Austen writes novels populated by monsters. George Eliot constructs a personal life filled with her own theatrical performances and characterizes her novelistic heroines by their degree of skill as actresses. Little Women, in Auerbach’s rendering, depicts life and marriage as “inevitable snuffings-out to which the strong submit.”

One can understand why Auerbach overstates her case. She wants to defamiliarize works perhaps too comfortably canonized and to establish lines of lineage too often ignored. She places The Mill on the Floss in a line including Gothic novels and the works of Sheridan Le Fanu, sets Alice in Wonderland in relation to the Victorian preoccupation with “fallen women,” demands that her readers think of Austen and Wollstonecraft together. She takes a fresh look at cliches. Did Austen and Eliot and Bronte really think of their literary works as children substituting for those they unfortunately never bore biologically? Should feminist critics concentrate on literature written by women? Arguing in support of her negative answers to such questions, Auerbach provokes discussion and suggests profitable lines that it might follow. She insists that we should not take our literary history for granted, reminds us that literary like other kinds of history is constructed, and boldly proclaims the stability of her own constructions. Admiring that boldness, and the energy with which this critic supports her positions, I yet find her intellectual structures shaky because insufficiently grounded in coherent theory, adequate social and intellectual history, or attentive reading of a text….

The last two essays in this collection (the only ones not previously published) show Auerbach at her best. Without the straining for authority that mars earlier pieces, the study of Eliot demonstrates by quotation from the novelist’s contemporaries and her letters the degree to which she acted self-defined parts and projected a carefully conceived public personality. Precisely chosen citations help the reader understand Eliot’s “performance” in the context of a belief–held by others as well as the novelist–that “sincerity” and “theatricality” need not be at odds. Then Auerbach demonstrates that even Eliot’s “good” characters–Dinah Morris in Adam Bede, for example, or Dorothea in Middlemarch–can be interpreted as expert actresses. Such “anti-heroines” as Rosamond Vincy or Gwendolen Harleth, she argues, “do not stand for the morally repellent deceit of acting, but simply for acting that is bad.”

This new way of thinking about Eliot illuminates perplexities of the novels and suggests further critical possibilities; it appears to emerge from the consciousness of a confident and informed critic. Even here, though, careless reading and overstatement weaken the argument. In her introduction to the collection, Auerbach claims for herself a scholarship of “trespass,” a word given positive weight by feminist usage. Going beyond preestablished bounds creates the excitement of criticism; when Auerbach writes most forcefully, she generates just such excitement. But trespass means, the OED tells us, “A transgression; a breach of law or duty; an offence, sin, wrong; a fault.” The critic, surely, must be careful about what laws he or she chooses to transgress. We may applaud writers who violate stultifying and largely unexamined inherited assumptions without wishing them to break the laws of responsible reading and precise assertion.

Patricia Meyer Spacks, Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jun., 1987)

This may appear to be just a bit of academic crossfire, but the difference in tenor between their two voices uncannily echoes their opposed reactions to Mary Garth. Auerbach criticizes Mary Garth for her pessimism and lack of liberation, just as she does The Female Imagination. And am I mistaken to detect a fair bit of Mary Garth’s own sardonic circumspection and restrained irony in Spacks’ review?



  1. Great piece on Mary, sadly ignored by me last week though I do like her quite a lot. So hard-nosed! And knowing.

    Sometimes, though, her wisdom seems to amount to something less than virtue, for me. I’m thinking in particular of the scene with Mr Featherstone and the wills. By refusing to burn his will, she maintains the appearance of her virtue. This is, of course, very important to everyone in Middlemarch, and especially important to women. But all I could think on this reading was that she cruelly insisted on refusing the final wishes of a dying man in order to maintain these appearances (and, critically, the appearance of virtue is not necessarily virtue).

    I imagine that it was in fact Eliot’s idea of morality for Mary to leave both wills intact; she doesn’t seem to condemn Mary for this in any way. The very fact that Fred does lose a potential fortune would seem to confirm Mary in having followed the right course–because if she had done otherwise, the appearance would have been even worse. But again, it’s only appearances, not real virtue! Poor, poor old Mr Featherstone, is all I can think, forced to struggle through his last night knowing that his property will not be disposed of according to his wishes because he is too weak to assure it himself and is refused help by the only one who could aid him.

    I don’t think this is the only time Mary is concerned with appearances over “reality” (or whatever you want to call it). It does seem to serve her well. She is no fool. But I can’t like her completely either.

  2. Thanks for the great response, because it evokes some things I’d already been thinking about since posting it. My take on this is, as you might expect, somewhat opposite. (It won’t surprise you either, I expect, to hear that I’m not terribly fond of Dorothea or Lydgate.)

    I think Mary refuses Featherstone’s dying wishes for two primary reasons:

    (1) She will get in trouble. Regardless of what Featherstone says, he will soon be dead. If anyone catches Mary fiddling with the boxes and the wills, she is doomed. She would be fired, her family would be disgraced, she could go to jail. These are not appearances, but reality, and there is every reason to expect that she would be caught. Featherstone’s idiocy in waiting until the very last minute and foisting the responsibility on his nurse reflects far worse on him than on her. I said that Mary’s virtue is a very pragmatic one, and I think that that is at work here: making Featherstone happy would be a temporary salve that would likely destroy her life, an appearance of virtue that would, in reality, be a sin against herself. Unlike Dorothea, who is rich and independent, Mary cannot afford to make such mistakes. She has to get things right the first time. And her response to Featherstone is not based in the appearance of virtue, but in the appearance of lawfulness: “I must refuse to do anything that might lay me open to suspicion.” Featherstone couldn’t care less; he exerts his rhetorical force over Mary, yet she stands strong: “I will not let the close of your life soil the beginning of mine.” No other character in the novel would have saved themselves in this situation.

    (2) Yet there is another component hinted at here, which is Mary’s “repulsion.” This is a very strong word: what is the cause of it? I believe it is because she sees that Featherstone is having some deathbed conversion experience: suddenly as he’s dying, he is finally seeing the light and deciding to be nice to her, after having treated her badly. In effect, he is asking for her forgiveness, yet doing it by placing a different burden on her: a burden of trust and risk, and one that he can’t possibly reciprocate since he’s about to die. I think it is right for Mary to be repulsed by this: Featherstone’s “generosity” is, in fact, just a selfish means to make himself feel better at the very great expense of risking Mary’s well-being. All in the name of just another one of Featherstone’s silly games to which he has had the undeserved luxury to subject others. And his final act on earth exemplifies his rotten, self-absorbed existence.

    Mary remains ambivalent at the end of the scene, but we aren’t told exactly why she is ambivalent–another case of her psychology being too complex and interior for the surrounding novel, in my opinion.

  3. It’s been ages now, but I did want to respond to this because I’m still troubled by the Garth-Featherstone affair :)

    My point about her virtue not being “real” in this circumstance wasn’t to say that she wouldn’t really have got into trouble—certainly, she most likely would have. But she wouldn’t really have done anything wrong; people would have thought she had, and she would have suffered for other people’s incorrect ideas about her actions. Just not because she had actually done anything wrong.

    You could say that the wrong thing would have been in doing something for Mr Featherstone that would jeopardize her family. Again, Mary is a practical girl. And to be sure, Featherstone is a nasty man. But if part of Eliot’s point here, and I think it is, is that this nasty man partially gets his comeuppance when he’s unable to leave his property as he desires, then he is genuinely harmed by this, deserved or otherwise.

    • Ah, I see, and I agree with you…but I think that Mary does as well, and this may play into her own ambivalent response. That’s the essence of tragedy, isn’t it? That one couldn’t have done otherwise and yet one is still on the hook for the guilt anyway.

  4. Michael Lynne

    20 May 2013 at 18:33

    Thank you for this sensitive and nuanced reading of Mary Garth. It’s been decades since I read Middlemarch in college, but the quotes you select and your comments upon them ring exquisitely true. As much as I admire Eliot, I was always frustrated by her decision to focus on Dorothea’s idealistic self-sacrifice to the repulsive Casaubon and Lydgate’s weakness and folly in marrying Rosamund. Alas, without them there would be no novel. Mary Garth, in her practical intelligence, insight, and loyalty, reminds me of Maggie Tulliver from The Mill on the Floss.

    Your observation that “…Mary’s dramatic moment is over as soon as it has begun. Such characters do not produce high drama. They contain the drama in their heads. Their day only came with modernism, not in the 19th century. I’m thinking not only of Eliot-lover Virginia Woolf, but also of Henry Green and Rebecca West.” is spot on. However, might one find at least an anticipation of a character’s inner thoughts in the epistolary novel, e.g., Richardson’s Pamela or Clarissa?

    I’ve recently discovered your essays on philosophy and literature: a treasure trove, much appreciated.


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